They’re Spanish speaking, and they’re Catholic. But that’s where the similarities with Europe – of which we are, for now, still a part – end.
I went to Nicaragua in the Spring of this year on a volunteering expedition with Raleigh International. But the focus of this article is not so much on what I did, although I will be blending my experiences of this country into the piece, but rather on Nicaragua. For this small country in the Central American isthmus, home to just over six million people, is a land abundant in charm, beauty and culture. The country’s national passion is literature, and some of the most famous poets of the Spanish language were born here. The word ‘Nicaragua’, as Nicaraguans will often like to tell you, comes from a native American word meaning ‘a land of lakes, volcanoes and splendour’.
Yet Nicaragua’s history, albeit fascinating, is often troubling. And its people, for the most part, are poor. A recent census from the New York Times estimated that nearly half of all Nicaraguans want to emigrate, most to Costa Rica to the south or to the United States to the north. The dark shadows of the 1979 socialist Sandinista Revolution, although making up the defining feature of Nicaraguan national consciousness, resonate harrowingly strongly.
And where the shadows of the 1979 revolution and the subsequent 11-year civil war echo most visibly is in the city of Leon, on the pacific North West of the country. The second oldest community in Central America and Nicaragua’s capital at the time of independence from Spain in 1821, Leon is a city embellished with neo-classical churches and elegant Spanish-colonial architecture. Yet it is a city marred with violence, for the city was bombed heavily by counter-revolutionary partisans in the 1980s. Many houses are abandoned, coated over with holes from gunshot fire, and the city is still yet to recover economically.
The city of Granada, to the south, is a different story. Being on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world, Granada boasts a more relaxed, drowsy feel. But as the sun starts to set, the sounds of the fiesta reverberate energetically and the city is filled with an irresistible, pervasive buzz. The party of the night acts as a striking contrast to the peace of the day, where any visitor is woken by the chiming of the city’s many church bells. The classical religious sites and colonial buildings provide Granada with its colour and aesthetic wealth, and helps explain why Granada is Nicaragua’s most visited city.
Beyond the cities, however, lies a countryside rendered spectacular by its abundant lakes, beaches and volcanoes. The beach-town of San Juan in the South West and the island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua both claim more than 60 000 tourists each year, and many Americans come to this country for its well-known Pacific-water surfing and volcano tobogganing. The Atlantic coast, albeit somewhat isolated from the country’s urban core in the West, offers an impressive array of white beaches, wet forests and native American historical sites.
But step beyond the beaten track and Nicaragua’s deprived interior becomes exposed. According to the organisation that I worked with, only 63% of Nicaraguans have access to clean drinking water and only 34% to improved sanitation. It should therefore be no surprise that Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere. An unchanging combination of rice, beans and tortilla makes up the daily diet of most rural Nicaraguans. Any visitor lucky or willing enough to enter the country’s interior will quickly realise that use of electricity, Wi-Fi and cars is strikingly scarce. Such underdevelopment has ignited an emigration crisis in Costa Rica – Nicaragua’s wealthier neighbour – as many flee, normally illegally, in search of a brighter financial future.
Yet Nicaragua is developing fast. Attempting to unchain itself from the shackles of its dark past, Nicaragua is emerging as an economically and politically stable constitutional democracy. Rumours are now surfacing of a future Nicaraguan canal, spurred on by Chinese investment, hoping to emulate the economic edge that Panama achieves in its own waterway. Almost all supermarkets, restaurants and savvy tradesmen accept, if not prefer, transactions in US Dollars, and competition between Movístar and Claro – the country’s two mobile networks – is fierce. According to the Huffington Post, the foreign exchange income in Nicaragua rose by 19.4% in 2012, and tourism to Nicaragua now numbers as high as 500 000 people per year.
But let’s not jump ahead of ourselves; these tourists aren’t coming from Europe. There are no direct flights between any European capital and Nicaragua. Most European tourists are forced to fly through the US, Canada or Costa Rica, and generally for an irritating cost. And it’s a shame, because on this side of the Atlantic we tend to either ignore Central America – seeing it as too distant or irrelevant to our world – or clump it together with South America, seeing all Spanish-speaking nations as slight but ultimately unimportant variations of the same thing. Did you know that all Central American nations, excluding Panama, used to be one country? Have you ever heard of Augusto César Sandino: Nicaragua’s national hero? Do you know what Managua – the current capital of Nicaragua – is? Probably not.
This is not your fault, however. This is because our current public discourse either tends to ignore many regions of the world or reduce them to somewhat unhelpful stereotypes. South America is known for mountains and drug cartels; sub-Saharan Africa for poverty and AIDS; the Middle-East for violence and terrorism. Yet in doing so, we undervalue the complexity of the world. We fail to appreciate the particularities of nations, of cultures and of people. We fail to face up to the challenges of an increasingly interconnected planet. We fail to see other human beings as deeply and as compassionately as we might want them to see us.
So, visit Nicaragua! Or Central America. It’s a region full of rich history, vibrant culture and incredible people. It has plenty of problems, but has much promise nonetheless. And we Westerners, Europeans, Brits, can, and should, harness that potential. In doing so, we will add to the richness of our own country, culture and world.